The Magazine

Das Leben Parisienne

The City of Light in darkest times.

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Arletty’s friend, the playwright Sacha Guitry, typified the sort of intellectual who could not resist being part of le tout Paris, even under foreign rule. He stood accused of “intelligence with the enemy,” the umbrella charge made against collaborators. In the end, the indictment was dropped, but not without the sting of a moral condemnation that applied to so many like him who needed publicity “like oxygen” and craved “the adulation and favors of the world.” At first, Albert Camus believed France needed to expunge those intellectuals tainted by the occupation. He acknowledged the purges were chaotic, but he nevertheless argued for them against the plea of Francois Mauriac, a Catholic writer who initially accepted Pétain but later joined the Resistance. Mauriac appealed for mercy in the cause of national reunification. Camus later conceded that Mauriac had been right. Others, noting the fickle range of punishments, wondered whether any writer should be censured for the “crime of opinion.”

Riding argues that it had been easier for visual artists to work without the taint of association with the occupiers. Picasso’s fame drew German officers to his studio, but he did not endorse Vichy. He never claimed to have joined the Resistance, but neither did he support the occupation. Even so, it smelled of opportunism when he joined the Communist party and presided over the committee responsible for “naming and shaming of artists under investigation” for consorting with the Germans. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, in 1939, he had not wanted to fight because the nation was “a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich​—​no one wanted to die for that, until, well, we understood that the Nazis were worse.” Sartre could fairly argue that it was no reflection on him that German censors had vetted his plays. Indeed, he could point to the subversive content of his work. Still, when he arrogated to himself the role of postwar chronicler of France’s ordeal, he gave himself a prominence in the literary resistance he did not merit. His main essay in this effort was translated and reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly, and with it, Riding slyly notes, “the construction of Sartre’s American image was well under way.”

In assessing the cultural legacy of occupation, Riding names some works of lasting value created during those four years, despite the adversity: a few enduring plays, such as Sartre’s Huis clos, a few musical compositions, particularly by Olivier Messiaen, some sculpture and painting, and “one great work of fiction,” Camus’s L’Étranger. More popular and ephemeral culture diverted the public during the occupation, and art construed broadly, both high and low, demonstrated to the French the resilience of their society. After the war, France’s cultural life revived, but in art, the center of gravity was shifting to New York. Once the most notorious traitors received their due, the French were content to forget Vichy and glorify the Resistance. Artists and writers benefited from this collective amnesia and returned to their work much as before.

Riding describes life for artists and writers during the occupation as 

a constantly evolving drama, a teeming stage where loyalty and betrayal, food and hunger, love and death found room to coexist, where even the line separating good and bad, résistants and collaborateurs, seemed to move with events.

He is, perhaps, too forgiving, too sympathetic to some of those leaders of French culture who trimmed their sails. And his ending is a surprise. France’s main postwar contribution to culture lay in the realm of thought, but because the nation gave an exalted role to theory after the war, just as before, it became “fertile ground for extremism.” In place of the utopianism of the radical right during the early 1940s, there emerged the baleful postwar utopianism of the radical left. The failure of these theories is a good thing, Riding concludes, because “politically speaking, artists and writers may now be less prominent, but they are also less dangerous.”

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.

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